How to Develop and Test a Site Using Mobile-First Design

Contributed content / By Naida Alabata / 28 March 2019

As more users primarily access the web via mobile devices year over year, web design should account for this shift in browsing behavior. Capture a more expansive audience by adopting the mobile-first method using cutting-edge tools and best practice techniques. 

The number of users with mobile phones worldwide is expected to pass 5 billion by the end of 2019. Subsequently, 52.2% of all global internet traffic was generated through mobile devices— and those numbers are only expected to rise. 

Along with the growth of mobile marketing, a consequence of this dramatic shift is the importance of embracing mobile-first website design. The value of having a mobile-first website cannot be overstated. When done right, it improves user engagement, which consequently improves open/click rates and conversions.

That said, in this article is a brief discussion of what it means to have a mobile-first design, a checklist of the elements developers should look at when designing a mobile-first website, as well as the best tools to test it with. 

What is a Mobile-First Design?

As the name suggests, a mobile-first design means starting your website design from the mobile end. To fully understand what that entails, there are three key concepts to grasp first:

Responsive Web Design (RWD) 

An RWD enables a website to intuitively fit an array of screens, from phones and tablets to desktop computers and TVs. Optimizing how the content displays on each type lets users conveniently view the content on whichever device they’re using. 

Responsive Web Design

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The graphic above lays out how the same website has a distinct appearance when viewed on four distinct types of hardware.

Progressive Advancement

In web design, progressive advancement means starting by building for a relatively low browser, like those used on mobile phones. This initial version should only include the most basic features and functions. As you move on to more advanced versions for tablets and desktops, add more interactions and effects to enhance the user experience. 

Graceful Degradation

Conversely, building for graceful degradation refers to web design that begins with the most advanced version. As you move down to lower browsers, strip away features and functionalities accordingly. 

As the mobile-first design is enthusiastically embraced, progressive advancement is gaining traction. Google even considers mobile-friendliness a ranking signal and penalizes sites that aren’t optimized for mobile devices. 

Users now spend most of their time on mobile devices, so mobile-first design offers the optimal user experience. Translating web content into a mobile-friendly iteration will improve engagement, click rates, and ultimately conversions. 

Tips for Designing a Mobile-First Website

Use a Responsive Framework

HTML frameworks have made web design easier than ever. As a recent article in Forbes points out,  designers can now use frameworks like Bootstrap and Foundation for both frontend and backend user interfaces. Frameworks like these use a grid-based content structure with columns and rows for content and app interfaces. 

What responsive frameworks like HTML does is automatically enhance the web design for mobile devices, allowing to focus on the features and functions that matter to your customers. 

Prioritize UX

Speaking of customers, providing yours with a great experience on your site should be web designers’ main priority. A website should be informative, easy to navigate, and intuitive to what the user wants to do. 

Prioritizing the user experience might prompt you to focus on advanced features, but sometimes it’s the most basic things that turn visitors off. 

Case in point: text appears differently on a desktop than it looks on mobile devices. Without optimizing written content for mobile, users have to zoom in and pan out to read it. As you probably know yourself, nobody enjoys having to do that. 

To take this issue out of the equation, use points instead of pixels for font sizes. To optimize font sizes and other design styles, use @media CSS queries.  

Speed it Up!

Last year, Google included page loading speed as a ranking factor for mobile searches. Not only does optimizing your load speed lower bounce rates, but it also bodes well for your SEO. Use the following tactics to improve your site’s speed:

  • Install a caching plugin – If you’re using a WordPress to build your site, plugins like WP Super Cache store static content so it doesn’t need to be downloaded every time a user navigates to the page.
  • Install a CDN – Content Delivery Networks allows your site to deliver content according to visitors’ geolocations. This speeds up your site by copying static content to a network of remote servers.   
  • Optimize images – Apart from compressing images for mobile screens, Forbes suggests using lazy-loading to deliver images without slowing down page loading.
  • Switch to HTTPS – Installing an SSL certificate and moving your website to the HTTPS protocol not only secures your site, but it also helps with loading speed. 

Simplify Navigation and Interactions

Adopting a mobile-first design entails special formats, interactions, and buttons. As you may notice, nearly all sites have strayed from the trend of including a navigation menu on their mobile platforms. Instead, many are using hamburger menu buttons to hide navigation links. 

Keep in mind that mobile users are used to tapping and swiping. For example, it’s easier for mobile users to click interactive buttons than text links. The more ways users can interact with swiping, the better. 

Test Your Design on Everything

Making your site look good is naturally a priority, but it’s equally important for it to perform uniformly well across all devices and browsers. 

Account for everything from older phone models to the latest tablets on the market. Even on browsers with a small user base like Internet Explorer, it’s critical to ensure your site performs smoothly. 

Test each individual page to ensure that every aspect of your page is optimized to meet your standards.  

5 Tools for Testing your Website

There are a variety of useful tools that businesses can use to test their sites. The five tools below are especially helpful for discovering how to improve your website. 

1) w3C mobileOK Checker

A web-based automated validation tool, w3C mobileOK Checker performs a variety of tests on a webpage.

MobileOK

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As shown above, the results generate a report with an estimate of your site’s level of compatibility with the mobile web. Meanwhile, the corresponding tool mobileOk Basic Tests 1.0 can test your website’s user-friendliness. 

2) iPhoney

As the name suggests, iPhoney shows you what your web design looks like on iPhones and Safari, including iPhone features. You can use the pixel-accurate web browsing environment it provides to develop websites for iPhones. Concurrently, it serves as a canvas to test your designs on. 

3) iPad Peek

Similarly to iPhoney for iPhones, iPad Peek can show you how your website would perform on iPads. While the tool can give you a good enough estimation of your site, Lifewire recommends using a WebKit-based browser like Google Chrome and Safari to reach the highest level of accuracy with a simulation. 

4) Google Mobilizer 

Google brands its extension Google Mobilizer as the fastest and easiest way to test your website on actual mobile devices, right from your browser. 

Along with displaying an exact replication of what users see, Mobilizer offers additional benefits:

  • Identifying issues
  • Monitoring metrics by device
  • Optimizing mobile UX

Unlike other tools, Mobilizer uses real devices rather than emulators and displays results on all market-leading devices side-by-side. 

Mobilizer Tool

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In this example, the program displays how the mobile version of Starbucks’ website appears on an iPhone 6, a Galaxy 5G, and a G2.

5) Gomez

Mobile readiness test, Gomez, banks its analysis on over 30 well-established mobile web development techniques to rate your page on a scale from 1 to 5. After assessing and scoring your platform, it provides tips to make your platform mobile-ready. 

For the next project in your pipeline, integrate the best-suited combination of relevant design tactics and technological programs and technology to fit your needs. Being equipped with up-to-the-moment industry insight and the most advanced tools on the market will empower you to design a site that performs seamlessly across platforms, for uniform user experience.

Moving Forward, Mobile-First 

Taking the mobile-first approach has evolved from an option to a necessity. As the standard for consumption in the online world leans ever more heavily toward mobile devices, leverage these best practice techniques to your benefit. 

Optimizing your website for mobile can be the key differentiator between having a successful business and getting lost in the mix. 

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